TEHRAN, Iran – Twice I’ve seen drivers hit pedestrians with impunity and drive away. Once a driver simply drove over the pedestrian crossing line, snagged an old man with his side mirror and dragged him onto the asphalt.

And then—here’s what I can’t forget—the driver stuck his head out and laughed at his victim.

So why do Iranians drive the way they do? Why do the descendants of the people who issued the world’s first declaration of human rights 2,500 years ago offer so little respect for fellow human beings when they’re behind the wheel?

Traffic accident in iran
A common sight in the Iran’s roads: chaos and heavy traffic caused by accidents.

I am amused by the incongruity with how Iranians act when they are outside the automobile. Two strangers are introduced to one another and they act as if they are each other’s long lost siblings. They heartily shake hands and shower each other with pleasantries of epic scale.

Ghorbaneh shoma: “I be sacrificed for you.”

Ghadameh shoma rooyeh chesh-mam: “Your feet be on my eye.”

Sayeyeh shoma kam nasheh: “May your shadow never diminish.”

Then these same Iranians climb into the driver’s seat and Hulk emerges.

What is it that brings about this transformation in personality? I ask this at every opportunity.

SD, office worker:

“The [1979] Islamic revolution leveled everything. What emerged afterward was a culture that valued relationships over merit and rules.

“We went from valuing rules to valuing relationships.

“As a result, some who previously weren’t qualified to serve tea became fantastically rich. This was difficult for others to watch; difficult for qualified, educated people who suddenly couldn’t even pay rent.

“I think people learned to dislike their own condition; they panicked; they felt that they too had to push and force their way to higher ground, no matter who’s in the way.

“Sentiments, caring about the fellow man, hospitality—all things that set the Iranian culture as truly special—had to take the back seat. The Iranian said, ‘I too have to become vicious or I’ll be left behind.’

“The revolution and events that followed—the war, the vicious street killings, and the way a minority got ahead at the expense of the rest of the country—all contributed to this change. People even learned to walk into offices and yell and make a scene to get their way.

“Really, people don’t know what else they can do to get ahead. They are like blind rats bouncing around in a maze, trying to find their way to this invisible prize. Time for wisdom and thought has long passed.

“I think driving in Iran is a mirror to this phenomenon. The guy sees with his own very eyes that there’s a kilometer of cars standing still in front of him, but he still honks his horn and yells obscenities. He’s in the maze, confined and angry. He wants out. He wants to go somewhere, anywhere other than where he is because he thinks doing something, anything will get him somewhere better. That’s what living without choices does to you.

“There’s a tiny space next to you and you need that space to turn toward your destination. But the guy behind you will do everything in the world to take that space and after he’s passed, the guy behind him follows. Absolutely no one will ever give you a break. Because in his mind he’s saying, ‘nobody ever has and ever will give me a break. Why should I give anyone else a break?’”

“You have people nearly running over an old woman their grandmother’s age but they laugh about it and don’t feel any remorse. To the contrary, they feel self-satisfied, like they just got ahead a little bit.

“This is something new. Iranians never terrorized each other to such degree. They’ve learned to do so.”

Traffic accident in iran
A common sight in the Iran’s roads: chaos and heavy traffic caused by accidents.

AE, college student:

“I don’t think we’re the same Iranians who built the Persian Empire. We have since mixed in with wild people, like the Mongols and the Arabs. The Persians who ruled the world are long gone. This is a different race.

“Driving in Iran is a reflection of people trying to feel powerful, trying to say, ‘I’m somebody too.’ This is how wild beings act; they don’t use their mouths; they use the pedal.”

RT, businessman:

“You got to understand that there is a whole new class of people today who are behind the wheel. The guy was riding a donkey to his farm all his life. Then land prices skyrocket; he sells and comes to Tehran. Now he’s driving a Peugeot. But this Peugeot has never been part of his culture; it’s something he never dreamed of in his wildest imagination; he has no idea how to handle the change.

“All he knows is that when presses the pedal, there’s a roar and the faster he goes, the more attention he gets. For him, it’s like owning his own space ship. But he still doesn’t have any idea how to handle it.”

SF, college student:

Being indifferent toward pedestrians “is the driver’s way of stating his superiority. He’s been on foot all his life taking it from the drivers. Now he’s behind the wheel himself and this is his way of saying, ‘I am somebody and you’re still a pedestrian.’”

GH, engineer:

“This is a cultural problem that goes back 70 years. From the beginning, when the automobile was introduced to us, we’ve never had the opportunity to learn the culture of driving as it should have been thought to us. They gave us the automobile but not the culture.”

SP, accountant:

“It all comes down to money and enforcement. There are a lot of laws on the books. In fact, we practically have every driving law conceivable. But what good is the law if it is not enforced?

“The government makes the laws but doesn’t spend the money to enforce them. So why should people obey the law if there’s no penalty for disobedience?

“It has nothing to do with culture. All people are self-interested beings; they are selfish by nature. Take away the penalty and all those beautiful highways you see in the West will be a mangled chaos in a day.”